At our SF short story reading group on Facebook we’ve been discussing story rating systems. Everyone has a slightly different way to review and rate stories but a 5-star system is common. However, several people expand that basic 5 levels into 10 levels with half-stars or pluses, or to 100 levels with tenths of a point refinements. Personally, I can’t distinguish that finely between stories to organize them into ten levels, much less one hundred. However, I can say subjectively I like one story better than another, and compare them relative to each other.

After reading 1,000-2,000 stories over the last four years I’m starting to get an intuition about their quality. Some stories just stand out above all the others, and the group essentially agrees that 5-stars should be reserved for those very best stories, the stories that have become recognized classics or feel will become classic in the future. And I say essentially because we never agree on anything precisely in our group. And this relative system of rating doesn’t mean one reader’s 5-star classic can’t be some other member’s 3-star it’s okay story.

We discuss one story a day, and maybe a handful of members out of a near 500 membership will read and comment on the story. Those comments are enlightening about how we each read stories, and what reading pleasures and displeasures trigger their responses. A few of us have started leaving star ratings and that’s beginning to become illuminating too.

I’m slowly getting a feel for the short story form, at least regarding science fiction stories. If you haven’t read that many SF short stories, even an average story can trigger a “far out” or “great” response. But once you’ve logged your ten thousand hours of reading time, you realize truly great stories are few and far between. My guess is less than six 5-star level stories are published each year, and probably less than two dozen 4-star level stories. Most stories are good solid stories but they must be classed as 3-stars if you consider them relative to the 5-star and 4-star stories.

In other words, a 4-star story is a story that breaks out from the crowd by a significant measure. It’s like the Magnitude scale for earthquakes, logarithmic. It just feels like a big jump from 3-stars to 4-stars, and that’s why so many in the group want to rate stories ***+ or 3.5-stars, or even 3.2 or 3.7, because they feel the story is better than average but not quite up to that 4-star level. When you’ve read a lot of stories it intuitively feels like a 4-star stories is a quantum leap above a 3-star story but few people can explain why in details. And there’s another another tremendous leap from 4-stars to 5-stars. When you think of stories like “Flowers for Algernon” or “The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas” you know very few stories come close to their magnitude in power.

I think many people want to rate fiction (or movies, or albums) like people rate their purchases on Amazon where 5-stars means you have no complaints. Which is why for some products on Amazon you see 80% 5-star ratings. When it comes to the artistic, 5-stars has to be for artwork that is 1 in 100 to 1 in 1,000 in quality.

But how can we understand this at a gut-reaction level? An idea came to me today that I think might help, so I’m trying it out here. Take any author you’ve read many of their short stories. How many stand out as your very favorites? How many are almost as good? And if you count the rest, how large is that number in relation to the first two groups?

Take for example Ray Bradbury. I consider these his obvious 5-star stories:

  • “There Will Come Soft Rains”
  • “Mars is Heaven!”

I consider his 4-star stories to be:

  • “The Million-Year Picnic”
  • “The Veldt”
  • “A Sound of Thunder”
  • “The Pedestrian”

And the first two I’d probably rate ****+ or 4.5-stars.

There might be other stories that I haven’t read by Bradbury that I would rate with a 5-star or 4-star, but for the most part I’ve read dozens of his hundreds of stories and they go into a vague 3-star pile. If I studied his work thoroughly, I’d probably find several more stories I love, but for now, this is how I remember Ray Bradbury.

For all my favorite authors I can remember stories that stand out as classic, and some that I don’t feel are quite as good. For example, with Clifford Simak, as much as I love “The Big Front Yard,” it’s not on the the save level as “Huddling Place” or “Desertion.” As much as I love “The Year of the Jackpot” by Heinlein, it’s not on the same level as “The Menace From Earth,” or “Requiem,” or “Universe.”

Another difference between 4-star and 5-star stories is how many times I will reread them. I can enjoy a 3-star story quite a lot, but I know I’ll never want to reread them. Whereas, when I read a story for the first time and know I want to reread again someday, that tells me the story is a 4-star story. Stories that I have read many times are the ones I think of as 5-star stories. In fact, I might not know a story is a 5-star story until I’ve read it two or three times.

There is no way to objectively and quantitatively rate a work of art, but using a system based on relative impact is somewhat helpful, don’t you think?

Using this relative system to read new stories, especially by authors I don’t know, can be troublesome. I have to rate the story against all the other stories I know by other writers. So if I’m reading a new story from the latest issue of Lightspeed Magazine it has to complete with all the 5-star and 4-star stories I’ve discovered over my lifetime.

Is that fair? Would it be fair to do otherwise?

SF Short Story Rating Systems I Admire

James Wallace Harris 6/10/21

7 thoughts on “The Difference Between 5-star and 4-star Stories

  1. I‘m way more lenient in my ratings. On average, fiction get 3.5 stars from me.
    There’s the occasional 5 star, but it’s more often than twice a year.
    The only trouble I had was to sort those rare masterworks into the other 5 stars. Works like Omelas or the Dispossessed, Dune or the Children of Hurin. I decided to break the usual rating system and give them six stars, and they are absolutely rare.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, there’s always a story where you want to tack on a higher rating. That’s why I like Paul Fraser’s *, *+, **, **+, ***, ***+, ****, ****+, *****, *****+ system. It’s really a 10-point scale, but I think of the plus as saying, “At the very top of this category.” He rarely gives ***** and I’ve never seen him use a *****+, but I guess it’s there in case he reads something better than all the other 5-star stories.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That sounds sad that he didn’t find anything worth the 5+. After all that that time, he probably won’t find anything worthy of it.
        I noticed that I‘m happier when I just pass half a star more instead of rounding down. I‘d never give a five star for a mediocre or average book. But when I really enjoyed a story, I don’t search long for something negative in it.

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        1. I tend to ignore the faults of the books I love and see more faults when I don’t like a story. That’s not really fair. Also, I figure our job is to help people find stories they’ll love, but I don’t want to misdirect readers either. If anything though, I’m over-enthusiastic for stories I admire, so my readers need to be careful. I try not to write about stories I don’t like.

          It hasn’t been until recently after I’ve read thousands of short stories, that I’ve gotten a sense for how some stories really do stand out significantly. Of course, most of that reaction is still subjective, but since I’ve also been reading about SF short stories, and collecting data on them, I have a sense of what they mean to readers and critics in general. At least statistically. Odds are if a story has gotten a lot of praise from a lot of people I will also love the story. Sometimes it may take more than one reading before I discover why for myself, but that old adage, “where there’s smoke there’s fire” is usually true.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Thank you for the interesting discussion!
          I‘m with you regarding „over-enthusiastic“ reviews 😁
          I found that people really want to know about bad or mediocre stories. Whenever I skip reviews for them, there‘ll be someone complaining and asking for details. Also, the blog is in parts for myself – to remember what I’ve read.

          In general, I don’t reread. There are a few exceptions (5 star stories or anything from Gene Wolfe, because you simply don’t get them at first read), but stories have to make sense at first read.

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  2. Great post! I don’t use stars when evaluating fiction since it IS subjective, but if I really like something I get very enthusiastic about it. Agreed also that authors’ work is of varying quality 🙂

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